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Our first The Real News Debate features Jonathan Kay and Leo Panitch.

Jonathan Kay is a columnist and Comment Pages Editor of the National Post newspaper. Kay is a regular contributor to Commentary magazine and the New York Post. His articles have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and various other publications.

Leo Panitch is the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and a Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto. Panitch is also the author of Global Capitalism and American Empire.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: In a press conference on October 17, President Bush fired a shot across the bow of President Putin.


Washington press conference
October 17, 2008

GEORGE BUSH, US PRESIDENT: We’ve got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.


Is the US call to isolate Iran motivated by their fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb? Or their resistance to a power that competes with their interests in the region. Joining me today is Jonathan Kay, journalist and managing editor for comment at Canada’s National Post newspaper, and Leo Panitch, the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Research at York University. So, Jonathan, the kind of course that the US is suggesting right now seems to fly in the face of what the IAEA, the non-proliferation agreement, and the Atomic Energy Association actually have as the legislation by international law governing what countries are supposed to be able to do. Iran is supposed to be able to enrich uranium.

JONATHAN KAY, NATIONAL POST: The problem with international law in regard to nuclear development is that exactly the same technology that allows you to enrich uranium up to the five or 10 percent or 20 percent or 30 percent grade you might use to develop nuclear power, that same technology also allows you to keep going and enrich it to 90 or 95 percent and create a nuclear bomb. So the argument that, well, international law might prevent these countries to develop uranium fuel for nuclear power generation, that doesn’t fly for me, because once you permit that, you also permit the creation of nuclear weapons.

JAY: So we should, then, say that the non-proliferation agreement as it exists should be thrown out.

KAY: Everyone agrees that the non-proliferation architecture that we have now is completely flawed.

JAY: IAEA doesn’t seem to agree.

KAY: Well, naturally, because they have a bureaucratic interest in perpetuating the status quo. But, look, Leo, we both have to admit that for years Iran essentially completely duped the authorities. They had what was a covert program. And if it weren’t for dissident groups within Iran that disclosed the existence of this program five years ago, all of the inspectors at the IAEA, I mean, they would have no idea that it even existed were it not for these dissident Iranians. So you can’t go by recourse to international law and whatever Mohamed ElBaradei says, and says, well, that’s holy writ.

PANITCH: But this is where we’ve come to in the world. We’ve come to a situation in which Cheney and his acolytes in the White House can declare that international law suddenly doesn’t apply. If this is going to be changed, it needs to be changed multilaterally, not on the basis of one state taking upon itself to police the world in this way. This becomes lawless.

KAY: You can rail all you like against Cheney. The fact is the United States government is simply taking the president of Iran at his word. I mean, that’s the irony here is that the United States is simply listening to what the president of Iran has said. He said he wants to destroy the Zionist entity. He’s saying that no force in the world can prevent Iran from getting the technology to enrich uranium and thereby create a bomb. So if you want to say, well, this is all Dick Cheney’s doing, I would say Dick Cheney would be powerless to fire up the world in terms of Iran if Iran itself weren’t provoking the world community.

PANITCH: No. I think this is irresponsible.

JAY: But why now? Let me read you what Mohamed ElBaradei said. Supposing that Iran does intend to acquire a nuclear bomb, it would need between another three and eight years to succeed. All the intelligence services agree on that. I want to get people away from the idea that Iran will be a threat from tomorrow, and that we are faced right now with the issue of whether Iran should be bombed or allowed to have the bomb. We are not at all in that situation. Iraq is a glaring example of how in many cases the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solving it.

KAY: Well, I mean, Iraq is a cautionary tale about what happens when you use force. Unpredictable things happen. Iran has certainly been emboldened and empowered by the Iraq invasion. Saddam Hussein, who was a counterweight to Iran, was eliminated. All those things are true. But three to eight years is not a particularly long time. And if you said in the early ’30s, oh, well, you know, Hitler won’t rise to power for several years now. It will be, you know, the late 1930s or the early 1940s before Germany can project force in western Europe, so let’s not worry about that. I mean, that’s absurd. Three to eight years is not a long time. And we may disagree about what the Bush administration is thinking about the Middle East, but to the extent they’re thinking about what’s going to happen in three to eight years, that is simply responsible statesmanship.

PANITCH: No. I mean, this is really irresponsible rhetoric, and I really can’t believe that this is now being taken in the media as something that can be seriously debated. Hitler invaded other countries. Iran has not done so. South Korea has not done so. There is one country, the one that is claiming that it’s acting on behalf of humanity here unilaterally, outside of law, that is invading other countries. The claim that North Korea is a state which has intervened against other states is absurd. I mean, one cannot do this. This is an Alice in Wonderland World.

KAY: No. Leo, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire.

PANITCH: Oh, please.

KAY: Iran has made the same threats in regards to [inaudible]

PANITCH: Oh, please.

KAY: No, no. But it’s like you’re defending these regimes, but you don’t take their rhetoric seriously. How can you do both? Either these are serious world leaders who are worthy of doing business or *

JAY: *But if you’re going to take their rhetoric seriously, Ahmadinejad was just in Washington and said the way the situation between Israelis and Palestinians should be settled is through a referendum. And that’s how he proposed—. Now, if you’re going to take all his words seriously, I didn’t hear many in the media take that very seriously. So I don’t think you just pick and choose.

KAY: Well, actually, just the opposite, in fact. You know, he was invited to and did speak at Columbia University. The event was scrutinized by the world media.

JAY: No. But this particular quote, though, his proposal on how to settle the Israeli-Palestinian was a proposal—.

KAY: Well, he says lots of things. He also says the—.

JAY: But that’s my point—he says lots of things.

KAY: He also says the world should await the arrival of the 12th imam, and the end of days will come, and then all the world will become, you know, one great empire under Shia Islam. He says all sorts of [inaudible]

PANITCH: Yeah, and so does Bush. So?

KAY: Well, we are discussing Bush [inaudible]. We are taking Bush*

JAY: *[inaudible] can’t judge a country’s foreign policy just by the rhetoric. And that applies both ways.

KAY: Okay. But that’s the problem with Iran’s president. I mean, just a few days ago, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, who was seen as a moderating influence on that regime, he quit because he felt like he couldn’t deal with Iran’s president. And Iran’s—.

PANITCH: But Jonathan, let’s get at the basis of what you’re getting to. What you’re getting to is what? Twenty thousand bombings and the mass murder involved in that? What are you getting to? Look, if deterrence is the question, if deterrence is the question, then John Abizaid, the head of command of the Middle East over the 2003 to 2007 period, who also said they won’t have the bomb until 2015, right, said that if they could get it, we could deter it. He wasn’t on message when all of this began a month ago, when the Heritage Institute, when The Weekly Standard, when Fox News all clearly were put on message to start moving on this issue. This is clearly about not having gotten him on message. And when he wasn’t on message, he said we could deter the bomb. We deter China.

KAY: Okay. Look, we’re going to the next stage in the debate.

PANITCH: No, but this is very important. For you to engage in this rhetoric as was done in the run-up to Iraq is a recipe for mass murder.

KAY: No. But you’re imputing to me the idea that I say we should bomb Iran now, which I’m not saying. What I’m saying is we should take the threat seriously. In terms of the next stage of the debate, the question is: okay, what do we do now? I agree with you that it would be folly to start bombing Iran now, because to me the problem is the technology. Once Iran has centrifuge technology, which they apparently have now, simply bombing installations won’t destroy that technology. They can recreate that technology within six months. So we agree that it would be silly to bomb Iran now. I agree with you on that. However, I don’t think you can simply say Iran is not a threat simply because, well, you know, they haven’t invaded anyone yet. What I do think is important is that western powers be on the same page. And that’s why I think it was irresponsible for Vladimir Putin to go to the Caspian region and say, “Oh, look, these folks are my friends.” You know, you could say, well, it’s a good cop, bad cop routine, but he’s taking the good cop routine a little far, because he’s making it seem as if Iran is a responsible member of the world community when it’s not. You brought up the China example and said, well, we’ve contained China. China we do not fear will give its nuclear weapons to a group like Hezbollah to bomb cities on behalf of the Iranian regime.

PANITCH: I have no fear that the Iranians would do that or any evidence that they would.

KAY: They did it in 2006 [inaudible] they gave them missiles to attack Haifa. Why would they give them—?

PANITCH: Well, the Americans give missiles to all kinds of people to attack people with. I mean, the point is you are engaging in a double standard that needs to be questioned. On what basis do the Americans claim to play this role in the world unilaterally? That’s what needs to be addressed in the face of this administration and the war crimes it’s committed.

KAY: Look, in terms of international law, if international law becomes the be-all, end-all of the debate, then all—then, I mean, this an argument among lawyers; it’s not an argument about foreign policy. Foreign policy has a moral component. And when you talk about a moral component, you draw distinctions between civilized western countries like the United States and perhaps Russia, if you want to put it in that category, and lunatic regimes* that talk about wholesale destruction [inaudible]

PANITCH: *Oh, really? So the United States only has a moral role in foreign policy.

KAY: We can debate the morality of it, but I don’t think you can put the United States in the same category as a rogue nation like Iran, whose leader has mused publicly about destroying another country, in this case Israel.

PANITCH: No, he did not use that word. He said that he wanted to get rid of the Zionist entity—not him personally. And a lot of people, including Israelis, are in favor of a binational state.

KAY: I don’t think he has in mind a binational state; I think—

PANITCH: Oh, please.

KAY: —he has in mind is a radioactive state.

PANITCH: But you need to ask, certainly, and the world needs to ask whether the United States acts as a moral entity, or as one which has blood dripping on its hands in this decade. And the claim that—it’s tragic, in fact—that a Napoleon [inaudible] like Putin is the one for regional reasons, obviously, for reasons related to the stationing of missiles on his border by NATO is beginning to act as a counterweight again to the United States. It’s tragic that it should be that type of dictator, that type of authoritarian figure who stands up to the United States, rather than, yes, the other western powers, the other western democracies, Canada. Where is France today in this context, with this kind of rhetoric and plans being—?

KAY: Well, France to its great credit—France to its great credit has actually been the most muscular.

PANITCH: Yes, exactly, and it raises very large questions about its real degree of independence, even after the run-up to Iraq.

JAY: So let’s move the debate. What is it you’re proposing? What do you think should be Canada’s policy? Or what do you think Americans should say their government’s policy should be?

KAY: The Iranian people will eventually get rid of this lunatic theocracy that has taken control of what in other respects is a civilized country.

JAY: Do you buy the proposition—we’ve heard it from many Iranians—yeah, I just want to just—one of the points you just said, many Iranians have said that this inflammatory—what they describe “inflammatory rhetoric” from the Bush administration actually strengthens the hands of theocrats?

KAY: That may be so, that may be so. There’s a reporter, called Mark Slackman, for The New York Times wrote an article a couple of weeks ago basically saying just that, that Iran’s president has very little legitimacy on domestic affairs within Iran, and the only thing that props him up is the fact that the whole world seems to pay attention to him, including us, apparently, because he makes such outrageous statements. So that’s an interesting side issue. But in terms of the race against time, I think that is where the world community should be focused, because three to eight years is not a long time. You have to get the leader of every civilized country on board, saying, “We are going to marginalize Iran. We are going to boycott it economically until it chooses a more civilized path.” And that’s why I think it’s discouraging to see Putin create a schism within western powers, which Iran can then exploit and say, “Look, the West isn’t presenting a unified face. Some of them want to deal with us. Some of them want to build commercial developments here in Iran. Some of us don’t think we’re a major threat.” And to me that’s a problem.

JAY: If anything, the process is going the other way. Many of the countries of the region are actually increasing their trade relations with Iran, and they certainly don’t share the American view that this is an uncivilized country.

KAY: That’s very discouraging to me. And if anything that maximizes the possibility of military force, because the Bush administration sees that there’s no hope of getting a multilateral consensus around the civilized world in terms of marginalizing Iran. It’s then that the only option on the table for them seems like the military option. So I think, Leo, if you want to, I mean, if you’re someone who doesn’t think there should be a war in the region, who thinks it would be utter folly to Iran, you should be the first person who should be chastising Vladimir Putin for going to the Caspian region and making nice with Iran’s president.

PANITCH: Well, if you think that the real issue has a great deal to do with whether Iran has a nuclear weapon or not. It has to do with the United States having destabilized the entire region, having established in that context a regime that it doesn’t control, or hasn’t controlled, at least, since the 1979 Iranian revolution as the preeminent power in the region. And this is clearly not so much about nuclear weapons. It’s about an attempt to clean up after the mess it made, which is that it’s stuck in there, and it cannot manage the region on its own, and this is clearly what it’s all about. Now, that is not to say that I actually wouldn’t agree with you, Jonathan, that their leaders were lunatic, and I frankly believe, I frankly believe that the leaders in the White House are closer to lunatic than the leaders in Tehran.

KAY: [inaudible]

PANITCH: I frankly believe that Cheney and Bush may, after the Republicans lose the election next November, think they are doing the world a favor when they illegitimately at that point in the hiatus between the next president taking over, the inauguration in January, and the November election, I frankly believe that those lunatics may think they’re doing the world a favor by installing the bombing of Iran and murdering tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. I frankly believe the lunatics of the world today are there. And that needs to be said more often, and much more often, and much more frankly in today’s media.

JAY: What do you make of that?

KAY: Look, first of all, I admire Leo for making a bold prediction in regard to what’s going to happen after Bush gets kicked out of the White House. It’s obviously not something I would advocate, but I admire you for making a prediction like that. I think Bush has got to cut a deal with Putin; he’s got to cut a deal with China; he’s got to say, “What will it take to get you guys on the same page?” Because if Iran gets a nuke, it may not necessarily be Tel Aviv that blows up. It could be Moscow. I mean, don’t forget there’s still *a low-scale insurgency in Chechnya.

PANITCH: *I mean, there is no basis for this kind of a statement at all. Iran has never, since the revolution, engaged in any behavior that would imply that. On the contrary—.

KAY: Iran is a country that uses terrorist proxies. And once a weapon gets in the hands of Hezbollah, there’s no telling what other—.

PANITCH: It does not use terrorist proxies. It has given support to organizations which are organically rooted in the region on their own, as the United States does much more often.

KAY: So blowing up 200 Jews in Buenos Aires, that was organically rooted in Argentine society, even though every study done of it shows—.

PANITCH: The evidence that that was conceived in Iran is absurd.

KAY: Absolutely wrong. Absolutely wrong. International legal tribunals have concluded that that was an Iranian plot hatched by Hezbollah. And if they have a nuclear weapon—.

PANITCH: This is the rhetoric that will lead to hundreds of thousands of people being killed, as they were in Iraq.

JAY: Jonathan, [if] what you described as Leo’s bold prediction actually turns out to be correct, what would be the consequences of such an attack?

KAY: Leo’s right in that that would be a disaster. It would be a disaster for a few reasons. First of all, it wouldn’t destroy the technology that the Iranians have. In order to destroy the technology they have, you’d have to kill every nuclear scientist in Iran, which obviously you can’t do. Second of all, every single Muslim who dies of cancer in the region in the next hundred years, that death will be blamed on George Bush, because they’ll say, “Well, you blew up this nuclear reactor. Therefore this was a secret plot to unleash disease and destroy the Muslim population of the Middle East.” We’ve seen similar conspiracy theories with regard to all sorts of things. It would radicalize the Iranian population, many of whom seem disposed to get rid of their government. It would unify the Iranian people behind the current theocratic leadership they have. So it would set back the cause of internal opposition to the theocrats. For all those reasons, Leo and I are on the same page, that from a strictly pragmatic point of view, it would be a disaster, plus, as Leo says; thousands of people will die, which obviously everyone would oppose. So at the end of this conversation, we both agree that a military attack would be following. Where we disagree is in terms of the actual motivations of the people [inaudible] I say they are trying to protect the civilized world. And neither of us want them to go too far, but their motivations are basically benign, whereas, Leo, I think you see this as just one more evidence of imperial US—.

PANITCH: I see the American leadership as uncivilized.

JAY: My suggestion will be let’s do that on the next episode of The Real News Debate. Thank you both very much. We end in a kind of agreement, which is remarkable given the whole process of the show. Thank you very much.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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